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TV Review: ‘Westworld’

With:

Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Tessa Thompson, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Jimmi Simpson, Rodrigo Santoro, Shannon Woodward, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Ben Barnes, Simon Quarterman, Angela Sarafyan, Luke Hemsworth, Clifton Collins Jr.

A beautifully restored old train deposits visitors in Sweetwater, a manufactured Old West town and the central settlement within “Westworld,” the role-playing resort in which paying customers can bring their most elaborate fantasies to life, setting out on frontier adventures or staying in the saloons to whoop it up.

But like a train, this drama runs on predictable tracks, and no matter how luxurious the trappings of the journey, the destination is obvious from miles away. “Westworld” looks terrific; its directors have shot its Western locations to stunning effect. But its warmly saturated outdoor scenes and its surface slickness aren’t enough to mask the indecision, condescension, and hollowness at its core.

Sometimes a drama contains opposing ideas that give it an enticing tension, but the contradictory impulses of “Westworld” fight each other in ways that detract from the show’s fitful momentum and thematic ambitions. It has a few nebulous ideas about the nature of memory and the contours of freedom and how those two notions are linked, but it rarely finds effective ways of bringing them to life. As is the case with the robots it depicts, there are unsettling and possibly unfixable flaws built into the base code of this drama, which, through its first four episodes, remains deeply confused about what it wants to be and what it wants to say. The vistas of “Westworld” are vast, but its imagination is constricted.

Through the haze of Western sunsets and inconsistent storytelling, it’s possible to discern a few things about this long-gestating drama. Ultimately, “Westworld” tries to teach basic and obvious lessons about free will and consciousness that borrow from common sci-fi allegories. It ploddingly remixes concepts about artificial intelligence from an array of sources like “The Matrix,” “Blade Runner,” and “Battlestar Galactica,” all of which boasted more clarity and drive than this project. But the most consistent stumbling block here is the way the story reinforces and perpetuates the very problems the show purports to identify and explore.

The Westworld resort has an enormous group of techs, writers, and executives who come up with and modify storylines that the guests can participate in; the place is an eternal work in progress. This aspect of the show could have been catnip for students of television and film, given that the characters debate the limitations of different kinds of narratives and battle each other over which approaches best capture the complexities of life — and the fancy of paying customers. The intersections of commerce, myth, projection, and self-deception could have been fertile arenas for the show to play in, if those working at the resort were not so sour, crabby and, in some cases, strident or self-aggrandizing. It’s also hard to take the staff’s debates seriously, given how middling their handiwork often is: The park’s robotic “hosts” tend to recite clichéd dialogue, and the two main female hosts offer a representation of the madonna-whore dichotomy that is not particularly fresh.

Even so, thanks to excellent performances from the actors playing the hosts, many of them seem incredibly lifelike and sometimes even psychologically complex, and “Westworld” frequently uses their plight to ruminate on the idea that the exploitative and desensitizing elements of fictional narratives can produce negative effects in reality. But the show seeks to raise such questions by serving up no end of distressing moments in which characters are terrorized, assaulted or murdered.

A screaming woman is dragged off to be violated within the show’s first 15 minutes. There are multiple mass murders (one scene features actual buckets of blood), and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) is a guest who operates like a standard-issue serial killer within the park. His quest, which is lifted right out of any number of video games or genre novels — and has echoes of the 1973 movie on which the show is based — only grows in importance through the first four episodes, even though his smug brutality quickly becomes tiresome.

The Man in Black claims to be searching for the game’s deeper level, but it never becomes clear if the park — or the show — has one. What it does have are repetitive scenes of bloodshed that don’t always add to the drama and more frequently detract from it. The designers have mandated that various scenarios reset and repeat frequently, so certain kinds of scenes play out many, many times. There is a place for violence within challenging narratives, but there is already a lot of brutal imagery all over TV, and very little about what plays out in “Westworld” is subversive or compelling. After a while, it’s simply overkill.

By now, it’s obvious that television drama, especially in the loftier prestige-driven realms, continues to have problem with the casual and reflexive overuse of violence against women. While it’s true that a number of men die in “Westworld,” using that argument to diminish the treatment of women here is to ignore the larger context in which this show operates, and the real world in which women live. Even now, when the expanding television industry offers greater opportunities to modify or reconsider clichéd modes of storytelling, drama writers continually resort to the rape, assault, and murder of women to provide inciting incidents, or to make a show seem “edgy” and to “raise the stakes.”

“Westworld” feeds into these tropes while signaling its concern about them, but that concern rings hollow the more its bloody and repetitive scenarios play out. And the drama undercuts itself through its frequent attempts to invest the architects of the show’s fictional realm with an air of tragic nobility — which often reads as defensive self-pity.

It is not new or revolutionary that “Westworld” depicts an environment in which human bodies — especially female bodies — exist for the pleasure and convenience of those who would use them and discard them at will. Like “Jessica Jones” or “Outlander,” two worthy and bold genre pieces, the HBO series could have explored the repercussions of oppression and sexual violence by emphasizing the perspectives of the people whose bodies were violated. Ranch-dweller Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and a prostitute, Maeve (Thandie Newton) do get some screen time, but their stories are often overwhelmed by the amount of time spent on the Man in Black, the park’s messianic creator, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and one of its “head writers,” Bernard (Jeffrey Wright).

At one point, Ford warns a female executive, Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen), not to get in his way; moments earlier, Bernard had shut down a junior female employee who raised concerns about anomalies in the park. In this narrative, women exist around the edges, scrambling for agency and autonomy, while the majority of the show’s arcs dwell on the men who monitor the hosts and design their stories, police the park, or take full advantage of its sexual and visceral thrills. Even Dolores’ storyline begins to shift its focus to a male guest who rescues and assists her.

Sustaining this kind of story over entire seasons of TV comes with a high degree of difficulty, as Joss Whedon’s similar, and short-lived, “Dollhouse” demonstrated. But even if “Westworld” can work out its core problems, which revolve around a lack of focus, skewed perspectives, and a generally dour tone, there’s not much suspense contained in the show’s central question: Will the robots rebel? It’s not a spoiler to observe that, in hundreds of almost identical tales, they have.

It’s those twin tracks — the deadening effect of watching a great deal of bloodshed meant to indict mindless violence, and the predictable nature of the central story — that make “Westworld” feel like a missed opportunity. In a number of ways, the program is reminiscent of “Vinyl,” another ambitious but muddled drama that reinforced a lot of worn-out Prestige TV tropes even as it attempted to tell the tale of a rebellion that threatened a company’s bottom line.

Part of the problem with “Westworld,” oddly enough, is that the actors playing the hosts are often quite magnetic. The work of Wood as Dolores is particularly nuanced and wonderful. But because characters like her are poignant and emotionally engaging from the beginning, the discussion about whether the hosts have attained consciousness seem somewhat pointless: To the audience, they obviously have. When another host catches glimpses of bodies scattered on lab floors like broken toys, it’s difficult not to think of the story’s architects as uncaring monsters. It’s the squabbling technicians who all too often seem cold, not the confused and questioning hosts who are casually recycled, diagnosed, and terminated.

Like the resort at its heart, “Westworld” doesn’t want to alienate any potential customers, so it draws on a grab bag of ideas and clashing tones without making its point of view clear. The more indistinct a concept, the fewer people can take issue with it, which is an approach that might work well for a vacation spot, but poses a serious problem for an ambitious television drama. Still, it’s likely that a subset of viewers who just want to see naked prostitutes and witness cool shoot-outs will be satisfied by what they find on the screen. Like most visitors to the resort, some will gladly partake in what’s being offered without thinking much about the cost.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'Westworld'

Drama: 10 episodes (4 reviewed): HBO; Sun. Oct. 2, 9 p.m. 60 mins.

Crew:

Executive producers, Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, J.J. Abrams, Jerry Weintraub, Bryan Burk.

Cast:

Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Tessa Thompson, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Jimmi Simpson, Rodrigo Santoro, Shannon Woodward, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Ben Barnes, Simon Quarterman, Angela Sarafyan, Luke Hemsworth, Clifton Collins Jr.

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